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Basic Information

Kur is the Sumerian word for Mountain. The word was also used both as the name of the realm of the gods (most of whom lived at the top of a mountain) and as the name of the underworld (the realm of the dead existed in the roots of the mountain far below the surface). For the most part, Mesopotamian myths and texts relied on context to clue you in to whether they were talking about the mountain top or the deep caverns of the dead. Occasionally they’d break out the longer title “The Land Of No Return” to specify the underworld cavern.

Because Mesopotamian Mythology crossed several cultures and centuries, both ends of the mountain were also variously known by the names Arali, Ekur, Erṣetu, Ganzir, Irkalla, Kigal, or Kukku. Also, just to make it confusing, Kur is also sometimes an alternate name for Nergal (kind of like how Hades can mean either the Greek underworld or a specific god who lived within it).

Kur was a distant place from the cities of the cultures that recognized it, but it was still a part of the Earth. Evidence suggests the Ancient Mesopotamians meant a specific mountain, on the other side of a specific river, at the edge of the “known world” (or the edge of the empire). Somewhere in what is now Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria or Turkey.

The Top Of The World

Unlike most later mythologies, the Mesopotamians didn’t seem to have much interest in imagining a series of worlds or any sort of cosmological cartography. It wasn't another world or dimension, it was just some mountain out there on the horizon.

Most of the gods of Mesopotamia lived at the top of the mountain, but not many details are given about that place. Individual gods were also said to inhabit particular cities, usually residing in a statue, temple and/or ziggurat in their city of choice. Why worry about the far-off home of the gods, if the most important local god lives downtown, and the others are just several miles further down the road?

Some of the gods also traveled across the heavens, which were supposedly a series of gemstone domes above the clouds. There was no way for humans to travel to or within those domes, and all that we could see of them was the twinkling of the stars. Again, few details were given.

The Land Of No Return: Kur as Underworld

The underworld portion of Kur was a big bleak cavern at the root of the mountain. Here the deceased lived a dry, dull, dusty parody of life. Unlike later religions, the Mesopotamian underworld had no moral sorting or punishment for misdeeds. Only one thing determined how pleasant or rough your afterlife was: the quality of your burial. The proper invocation of Ishtar at your funeral would improve what awaited you in the caverns of Kur, at least a little. As a result, the art on grave goods in ancient mesopotamia often depict Ishtar. Having someone to mourn you was also a benefit. The best burial option was to be placed in a properly decorated urn kept inside the home of your surviving loved ones. Graveyards were not really their thing.

Though shadowy and lacklustre, the underworld was not a hell or punishment, per se. It was just dull, and the food was bitter.

There was also nothing to drink but dust… which is kind of weird, because there’s a river named Hubur that runs to the underworld cavern. The souls of the dead had to cross this river to reach their final resting place. But apparently, it’s waters didn’t actually make it into the place where dead Sumerians spent eternity.

In some of the stories there exists a ferryman named Urshanabi (or, weirdly, also known as “SI.LU.IGI”) who takes you across the river. He offers Gilgamesh a ride when Enkidu dies, for example. His ferry is drawn by mysterious “stone things”, until Gilgamesh replaces them with 120 stakes. Not gonna lie: I have no idea how to picture any of this “stone thing” and “stake-drawn ferry” nonsense. Maybe it’s a coded myth? Alternatively an early typo might be to blame (snakes and stakes might not be as easily interchanged in the original language, but there may be some equivalent substitution), or an attack of euphemism for something that their culture resisted naming. We could also be looking at a tethered ferry, hauled by hand from anchor point to anchor point - Gilgamesh replaces the original route between stone outcroppings with a line of piles that provide a more direct voyage: could be a model of a contemporary development in river crossing technology being transplanted into a myth.

In other myths, instead of the ferryman there was a demon or monster who carried the dead across the sea. This was usually in the form of a huge bird with four hands.

Prior to even reaching the river, the newly dead also had to travel through either a hazardous desert or difficult steppe, depending on the myth you're reading and what part of Mesopotamia you were in when you died.

Once across the river, you still had a ways to go to get into the actual land of the dead. There were seven concentric walls within the cavern, each with a gate or door to pass through. There is always a layer of dust on the door handle, as if no one had ever opened it before. Inside the 7th gate is a huge city of the dead.

Inhabitants of the Underworld

All the dead of Sumer, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, and Babylonia (or at least all the ones who were properly buried) live in the city in Kur’s cavern. Social status from your mortal life was preserved, assuming your burial was conducted properly. If the circumstances of your death prevented proper funerary rites, if there was no one to mourn you, or if the required cult statues were absent from your tomb, your quality of afterlife would be correspondingly diminished. If your body was just thrown in a mass grave or the like, then your soul would be homeless and begging for bitter scraps in the land of the dead.

In addition to all those dead Mesopotamians sitting around in the gloom, there was also the leading family of underworld gods:

  • Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. (Sister of Ishtar)
  • Ereshkigal’s spouse, who is either, depending on the story and era:
  • Her son: Ninazu, and his son: Ningishzida
  • Her second-in-command: Namtar
  • Her gatekeeper: Neti
  • Her scribe and record-keeper: Belit-Tersi
  • At any given time, exactly one of the following:
    • Ishtar (only there for a single short visit, and may be a temporarily lifeless corpse hanging on a wall) -or-
    • Tammuz (there for roughly half of every year) -or-
    • Geshtinanna (the other half of every year)

All of the above reside in a big gloomy palace in Kur’s inner city. Note that they are not likely to be one big happy family. Ereshkigal was originally dragged down here against her will, so there's a good chance of scheming or vengeance subplots. Cold shoulder and bitterness at the very least. At some point, Ereshkigal's abductor-husband died, and Ishtar entered the underworld to attend his funeral. Because Ereshkigal didn't really like her sister, Ishtar was told she had to remove one article of clothing as a toll to get through each gate, leaving her naked by the time she got to the city at the center. Showing up naked was no big deal for a vixen like Ishtar, but it was officially disrespectful to drop in to a relative's funeral so under-dressed (even if that relative was the in-law that had kidnapped and raped your sister). That was all the excuse Ereshkigal needed to have Ishtar executed, and her naked body hung on a wall as a trophy or warning. That would have been the end of Ishtar, but (despite being dead at the time) she made her lover Tammuz sacrifice himself so she could go free. He in turn pressured his sister Geshtinanna to give up half of every year so he could go free while she was doing his time. (The one silver lining here was probably that she'd never have to spend time with her jerk of a brother once this schedule was in place.) This story has a lot of parallels to that of Persephone in Greek Mythology, but you'll notice that it is decidedly more screwed-up and morally bankrupt. The gods of Ancient Mesopotamia are just awful like that.

Other divine inhabitants of the city of the dead include:

A variety of demons lived in the city, more were found outside the gates in the cavern, or on the banks of the Hubur. A few of the more noteworthy ones were:

  • Asag
  • Lamashtu
  • Pazuzu
  • the class of demons known as Gallu who would drag back any soul who tried to escape from The Land Of No Return

Remember, the word "demon" didn't have our modern context way back then. To the Mesopotamians (and the ancient Greeks) a demon was more like what we would think of as a spirit. Many were evil, but others were good, or at least ambiguous, and some were devoted to specific tasks rather than really having a conscience or consciousness.


5. Non-Fiction Book: Mythology for Dummies by Blackwell and Blackwell

Game and Story Use

  • An alternative model of the afterlife (like Kur) may be useful for games set in the distant past or a fantasy equivalent. Especially in a setting or rules-set where there's no easy spell to travel between worlds. You don't need magic to get to Kur, you just need a map and a boat.
  • Characters on a heroic quest may have to retrieve a macguffin buried in Kur. Here's the necessary steps to find it:
    1. Study at some museum or library for the clues,
    2. Then travel to Iraq,
    3. Take a boat up the Euphrates to its source at the root of a mountain,
    4. Locate the correct cave at the river's banks, possibly marked in some way as described in the clues they'd researched,
    5. Pass through seven gates or overcome seven challenges, (preliminary research comes in handy here again, and it doesn't hurt to pack a spare change of clothes)
    6. Navigate the city of the dead,
    7. Infiltrate the palace of Ereshkigal,
    8. Grab the goods and make a break for it,
    9. Demons pursue them and try to drag them back down.
  • The inhabitants of Kur are sick and tired of millennia of gloom, and jealous of the vibrant lives they left behind. They've had a very long time to plot their escape, and ample opportunity to train for their conquest of the surface world. Ancient Mesopotamian ghosts or demons are headed our way!
    • In Ishtar's descent, she threatens Neti with "raising the dead to eat the living". A zombie apocalypse may be in the cards.
  • There's a few head-scratchers in the tales of Kur, and especially the details around Urshanabi. Those wierdo loose ends are a great place to insert a coded myth, metaphysical mystery, or a newly-discovered text that makes sense of it all.
  • Who really calls the shots in Kur?
    • Is it some divine noble like Ereshkigal or Nergal? Or are they merely figureheads?
    • Was Gugalanna really just the civil-engineer/middle-management-type that his title “the canal-inspector of the gods” suggests?
      • This could be an example of values dissonance - in a culture that depended heavily on man-made irrigation and water transport, the canal inspector is responsible for the thing that keeps his civilisation alive.
    • Do well-buried Kings outrank the gods? Is there actually a thanotocracy that runs the show in the city of forever? Has Sargon of Akkad set up a post office for the damned? Does Hammurabi dictate an emo afterlife code of conduct?
      • This was the sort of era where despots claimed divine status - promotion from "god-king of the city" to "god" might be more of a move sideways. A sort of "god-king emeritus" thing.
  • The gods of Mesopotamia are immoral and alien to our way of thinking. That notion inspires an idea: The Ancient Astronaut angle could be interesting. If the demons and gods were aliens instead, Kur might be their crashed and buried mothership.
  • Presumably food and drink offerings would play a significant part in Mesopotamian necromancy - or possession by one of the dead may lead to compulsive drinking and/or eating.
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